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Old Man

Curtiss Hawk III, Command Plane, 4th Pursuit Group, CNAF, July, 1937

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When in July of 1937 China's Nationalist Party government resolved on war in the face of Japanese military action near Peking, the Curtiss Hawk III was the chief fighter plane of the Chinese air force. The first Chinese fighter pilot to shoot down a Japanese aircraft, Colonel Kao Chi-hang, did so from the cockpit of a Curtiss Hawk III biplane.

 

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How the Curtiss Hawk III came into being, and came to its prominent position in Nationalist China's air service, is a strange and tangled tale.

 

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In the late nineteen twenties, Curtiss modified the Army's 'Falcon' attack plane for the Navy and Marines, producing the flamboyantly named Helldiver, a true dive bomber, and one of the earliest. In 1932, Curtiss presented the Navy with a single seat machine, the F11C-2, capable of fighter operations and of dive-bombing, with the same 500lb load the 'Helldiver' carried, and able as well to undertake scouting duties with a large external fuel tank fitted in place of bombs. As this was going into production, the Grumman company won a Navy contract for a two seat machine with retracting landing gear and an all-metal frame, which out-performed the Curtiss single-seater. The Navy wanted something similar from Curtiss, and an early producton example of the F11C-2 was pulled for modification, fitted with wings framed in aluminum, and with an arrangement in which its landing gear retracted manually into two 'lobes' extending down on either side near the nose. This last gave the resulting aircraft a quite distinctive profile, as well as a ventral channel on its center-line where a large bomb or fuel tank could be carried.

 

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This was accepted by the Navy as the BF2C-1, and the first production examples were delivered near the end of 1934. There were some difficulties with the landing gear, and the ventral channel disturbed the flow of air to the elevators and rudder when a bomb or tank was carried on the  center-line rack. These things were fixed readily enough, the latter by a venturi ring fitted between the 'lobes' at the front of the ventral channel. But the great problem was that at normal cruising speeds, the metal structure of the wings proved to resonate to the the vibrations of the Cyclone motor,  inducing severe flutter that made the airplane difficult to control, and fatigued its structure. The phenomenon was poorly understood at the time, but the effect it produced ought to have been caught in pre-production trials. In the absence of a good understanding of what was going on, no remedy for the metal wing's vibrations could be found, though tests along several lines were carried out in the attempt.  Curtiss proposed replacing the wings with the original wooden structures, but the Navy would not pay for this and Curtiss would not do it for free. When one BF2C-1 disintegrated in flight early in 1935, the Navy pulled the type out of service. The airframes were stripped of everything useable, then unceremoniously dumped in the sea off the California coast, and it was questionable for some time if Curtiss would be able to supply any airplanes to the Navy at all after the debacle.

 

 

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When the BF2C-1 was fitted with the original wooden wings which had served the Hawk biplane series so well for a decade, since the first P-1 Hawk fighter went into production, the Curtiss company had in this aircraft a perfectly serviceable fighter-bomber, but one in which no armed service of the United States had the slightest interest. To salvage the design as a business proposition, Curtiss turned to the export market, offering the machine around the globe as the Hawk III. It would become the company's best selling export design. While there were sales to be made in Latin America, and in the Kingdom of Siam, the biggest prize in the export market for military aircraft at this time was Nationalist China.

 

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There not only the Nationalist government at Nanking, but also a rival government at Canton claiming to be the true Nationalist government, were seeking to augment their military forces, and particularly their air services. The Curtiss company was represented in China by one William Pawley, whose dexterity as a salesman and a shrewd political operator may be gauged by his career to date: Pawley had sold earlier Hawk fighters to Nanking, arranged a flying school for Canton, and begun to construct and operate aircraft factories for both the Canton and Nanking governments. He sold sixty Hawk IIIs to Nanking and eleven to Canton, with deliveries beginning in May, 1936, and Canton receiving its first examples shortly before Nanking did. By the time the full order of Hawk IIIs had been delivered to Canton, the government there collapsed, with troops loyal to Gen. Chiang Kai-shek at Nanking entering the city. A further contract was struck, for parts from which another thirty Hawk IIIs were to be assembled in China by the Central Aircraft Manufacturing Company, a firm set up by Pawley to provide an aircraft factory for the Nanking government. But no finished aircraft were delivered from this till the spring of 1938, well after open war between Nationalist China and Imperial Japan had commenced.

 

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For all the odor of skullduggery emanating from Mr. Pawley's operations, and the decided air of lemons to lemonade clinging to the aeroplane itself, it is hard to fault the Chinese decision to acquire the Hawk III in quantity. They had got about the best machine immediately available to them, and one well suited to the full range of their needs, as they conceived them to be when the purchase was made. There were better machines flying, some even in service, and much better ones on the drawing boards, but none of these were on the market. The Hawk III's performance was comparable to such well-regarded contemporaries as the Fiat CR 32, the Gloster Gauntlet, and the Grumman F3F-1. Its ability to double as a light bomber, and great range with an external tank, which few of its contemporaries could match, were of great potential use in a vast country whose government was necessarily as concerned with internal rebellion as foreign foes. The basic structure Curtiss employed in its Hawk biplanes had hardly changed in a decade; if this meant it was old-fashioned, it also meant that it was known to be rugged and would require no great new investment in new training for ground crew.

 

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When Nationalist China's air arm entered combat with Japan in the summer of 1937, two thirds of its first line fighters were Hawk IIIs, the remaining portion being a mix of surviving 'Old Hawks' (Hawk Is and Hawk IIs), Boeing 281 and Breda 27 monoplanes, and Fiat CR32s. It remains open to debate just how matters came to the pitch of open war between Imperial Japan and Nationalist China in July, 1937. What can be stated certainly is that local commanders took a leading role on both sides in pressing events to wider hostilities, and that neither the government in Tokyo nor the government in Nanking had made any particular preparations for war that summer. While fighting began in the Peking area, it was not really till mid-August, when fighting commenced in Shanghai, that the die was truly cast on both sides for war, and it was only then that the air services of either side came into significant play. For the fighting at Shanghai drew into the fray the Imperial Japanese Navy, and it was this service, rather than the Army, which possessed the stronger air arm, and the capacity for strategic bombing.

 

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In assessing the combat performance of the Hawk III, it is hard to separate out the institutional inadequacies of the Nationalist Chinese air service from the qualities of the machine itself. The Hawk III performed quite well as an interceptor engaging unescorted bombers of even the most modern type, and proved a serviceable light bomber over Shaghai. In the earliest days of air fighting round Shanghai, small groups of Japanese Type 90 Carrier Fighters severely handled large formations of Hawk IIIs on at least two occasions. Since the Type 90 Carrier Fighter was decidely obsolescent, much slower than Hawk the III, it is hard to explain such outcomes without invoking great differentials in training, both in skills of flight and in tactics, between the average pilot of the opposing forces. When the Type 96 Carrier Fighter, a fast monoplane, was introduced to the combat, Hawk III losses became routine and severe. Yet on occasion skilled and experienced Chinese pilots in Hawk iIIs were able not just to survive but prevail against the Type 96. Still, the Hawk III was virtually shot out the Chinese air force by November, 1937, with the void left filled largely by Soviet equipment. Hawk IIIs re-appeared sporadically in small numbers, as new ones were assembled and others patched together from salvaged parts and spares --- one squadron was flying Hawk IIIs in defense of Chungking against Japanese bombers in 1940. Those machines still surviving continued as trainers after U.S. lend-lease equipment, and elements of the U.S. Army Air Forces, began arriving in China after Pearl Harbor.

 

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This model represents the Hawk III flown by Maj. Kao Chi-hang, as it would have appeared in July of 1937. Kao Chi-hang was at that time a very experienced pilot. He had come up through the military service of the great Manchurian war lord, Marshall Chang Tso-lin. Kao Chi-hang was the eldest son of a well-to-do Catholic family in Fengtien province, and attended a French Catholic high school in Mukden. He was accepted as an artillery cadet on graduation, but decided on a military flying career. After being turned down initially, he wrote in French directly to the son of 'The Old Marshall', Chang Hsiueh-liang, among whose titles was Commandant of the Aviation Bureau. That worthy was sufficiently impressed with Kao's language and audacity that he saw to the young man's being selected as one of a group of cadets being sent to France to learn to fly. These were trained extensively at the schools of the Morane and Caudron firms, and returned to Manchuria in 1927. Kao Chi-hang was assigned to the 'Eagle' squadron. What Kao flew in that squadron cannot be known (equipment was extremely mixed) nor can it be said for sure whether Kao saw service against the National Revolutionary Army of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek during the final years of the Northern Expedition. When the 'Old Marshall' was assassinated by the Japanese, and his son Chang Hsiueh-liang gave loyalty to the Nationalist party in 1929, Kao Chi-hang became a flight instructor at Mukden, doing so in company for a while with several Japanese Army fliers. When the Japanese occupied Mukden in September, 1931, Kao disguised himself and made his way south. He joined the air service of the Nanking government, and became a flight instructor at the Central Aviation School at Hangchow, working with American fliers led by Col. Jouett. He was a member of a Chinese delegation sent to Italy to examine Italian aircraft on offer to China in 1934. In 1936, Kao Chi-hang had the rank of Major, and was commander of the 4th Pursuit Group, whose three squadrons were newly equipped with the 'New Hawk' Curtiss Hawk III.

 

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With the Japanese closing in on Peking at the end of July, the 4th Pursuit Group was sent north from Hangchow to Chow Chia Kou, in the east of Honan Province. When on August 9 a Japanese Navy officer at Shanghai was killed for refusing to leave the environs of a Chinese aerodrome, Gen. Chiang Kai-shek resolved to begin offensive operations, but at Shanghai in the Yangtze valley, not in the north. Maj. Kao was summoned to Nanking for a commanders conference; on August 14 the Chinese air force was to go into action at Shanghai. Maj. Kao was flown to the 4th Pursuit Group's base at Hangchow, not far from Nanking, and the group's squadrons flew there direct from Chow Chia Kou. The Japanese had also decided to commence aerial operations, at Shanghai and in the Chinese interior, on the 14th of August. Typhoon conditions off the coast prevented Japanese carriers from launching planned attacks, but the long-range G3M Navy bombers based on Formosa, fast twin-engine, twin-rudder machines, were able to take off, though the weather played hob with their navigation and formations. Two squadrons of the 4th Pursuit had landed, low on fuel, when warning came Japanese bombers were approaching, flying low under the clouds. Machines were hurriedly fueled and took off to engage. Maj. Kao's IV-1, flown down by a ferry pilot, landed, and Kao evicted the pilot, climbed into the cockpit and took off.

 

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Maj. Kao saw one Japanese bomber under attack by one of his pilots, who was firing at an impossibly long range. Kao closed with the G3M from the port rear, where its port fin blocked the bomber's defensive fire. At point-blank range, Kao shot up the fuselage, and there was no further fire from the Japanese gunners. Kao fired into the port engine of the Japanese plane; the motor stopped, fuel tanks at the wing root caught fire, and the G3M crashed. Maj. Kao engaged a second bomber, again shooting up its port engine, but by now his fuel tanks were empty; he had to break off and make a dead-stick landing. Another Chinese pilot subsequently engaged this plane, and though it was claimed and confirmed as destroyed, its pilot brought it back to land at its base, where it was written off as past repair.

 

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Next day, the seas and wind had moderated sufficiently that the Japanese carriers could put aircraft into the air. The area was still afflicted with low, dense cloud, however. Japanese planes were sighted approaching the 4th Pursuit Group's airfield with just moments to spare. It was a formation of eight Type 91 bombers, big biplanes barely able to break a hundred miles an hour with a full war-load. They were set upon among the thick clouds by some twenty Hawk IIIs. The first one Maj. Kao engaged was, oddly, the only one of the Japanese planes which made it back to its carrier. Kao attacked two more, claiming them shot down in flames. He also was shot from behind shortly after engaging his last target; the bullet went through one arm, through the instrument panel, and damaged his Hawk's motor. Maj. Kao managed to make it back to his airfield and land safely, but he would be in hospital for two months.

 

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When Maj. Kao returned to his unit, matters were greatly changed, and for the worse. Casualties from the new Mitsubishi Type 96 monoplane fighters in the air, and from Japanese bombs on the ground, were so great that all the Chinese pursuit groups were brigaded together, and even so could muster little more than the original peacetime strength of a single squadron. They had not taken off to engage the Japanese for weeks. Kao ordered the Hawk IIIs to be stripped of everything extraneous to flying and fighting; racks for bombs and fuel tanks, landing lights, the venturi cowl, and more, were discarded. In this lightened condition the climb, nimbleness, and speed of the Hawk III were appreciably improved.

 

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On the afternoon of October 12, nine G3M bombers escorted by Type 96 fighters were reported heading for Nanking. Maj. Kao led every available Chinese fighter to intercept --- five Hawk IIIs, two Boeing Model 281 monoplanes, and one remaining Fiat CR 32. There proved to be eleven of the Type 96 fighters, and the Chinese fighters never got near the bombers, but rather were engaged in a melee with the Japanese fighters that went on some time. Maj. Kao attacked a Japanese fighter on the tail of one of his pilots, outmanouvered it and sent it down trailing smoke to crash. He was then engaged by three Japanese fighters. The experienced Kao Chi-hang managed to keep himself out of his opponent's sights with extreme manouvers, and even got off a few quick bursts himself. Eventually two of the Japanese broke off the fight; the third remained, performing loop after loop. Kao had mortally wounded its pilot, and in dying he had clutched the stick to his belly. The plane eventually came down and was salvaged reasonably intact. Two other Japanese fighters were downed in this engagement, losses acknowledged in Japanese records. Only one Chinese fighter, a Hawk III, was brought down, though several took some damage.
 

 

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This was about the last hurrah of the original fighter strength of the Chinese air force, however. New equipment was en route from the Soviet Union, some to be flown by Soviet 'volunteers' and some to be issued to Chinese units. Kao Chi-hang in November was promoted to Chief of Fighter Aviation with the rank of colonel, while retaining command of the 4th Pursuit Group, whose pilots he led north to Lanchow, in far away Kansu Province, where they would receive Polikarpov I-15bis biplanes and I-16tip5 monoplanes. After a short period of familiarization with the new machines, the 4th Pursuit Group began flying back towards Nanking by stages. On 21 November, they landed at Chow Chia Quo to refuel. They weather went bad and take-off was delayed. A force of Japanese G3M bombers appeared overhead nonetheless, and rained down bombs. One struck alongside Col. Kao's I-16 as he and several ground crew were trying to get its balky motor started, and all were killed instantly.

 

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The model is built from the new Special Hobby 1/72 Curtiss 68/Hawk III kit, in its 'First Chinese Ace' boxing. The kit is not really new, but rather the old MPM Hawk III offering, with some improvements and alterations: better surface detail, the proper bulges for a Chinese version, an injected windscreen and semi-canopy, and a small effort at sidewall detail for the cockpit, among others. It remains a limited-run style kit, though of very good quality for its kind. It has the great virtue of being there, the only kit available in 1/72 for this odd and significant aeroplane; for aficionados of subjects Chinese, and the inter-war period in general, that does count for, and can excuse, quite a lot. It does need work. The cowling and motor are too small; I increased the diameter of the cowling by a bit over half a millimeter, with shims in four locations. Otherwise, there just wouldn't have been room for the individual exhausts between the cowling and the nose, or for the carburetor intake at the top of the nose. I built up the 'horns' of the resin Cyclone motor provided to increase its diameter by one millimeter, otherwise it could not have fit the cowling (it started out too small). There is no positive point of attachment for the motor at the nose; I cut the faceplate away and put in a piece scalloped to receive cylinders from an RS Models Hawk II kit (it fit perfectly). I made my own exhausts; the kit provides a resin ring/manifold that strikes me as most dubious. There should be cut-outs in the trailing edges of the lower wings at the root, and I cut these in. I obliterated extremely thick walkways at the root. I trimmed off the bell-crank fairings, preserved them, and re-attached them after putting the 'Suns' on the lower wing, then painted them to match the national markings. I made my own bomb-racks and landing lights (the kit does not include the latter, and does have some generic photo-etch for the former). I put in some center-line detail as well in the ventral tunnel. I did not use a photo-etch piece provided for the front of the venturi ring, no photo I have seen shows anything remotely like it. The instructions would have you remove some plastic at the tail and use a bare tail wheel assembly, but this is not accurate for Hawk IIIs near the start of the fighting (one machine, 'white 88', the instructions call-out as operating at Shanghai in 1937, is actually a lingering trainer at Kunming six or seven years later, and certainly had a bare tail-wheel). I did some work at the wheel wells, and made the minor landing gear elements and the little doors myself, only the main legs and wheels are from the kit. I scratch-built the cockpit interior. The kit gives very thick edges to the cockpit opening at the sides, and the seat would not fit if properly placed unless these are taken down. The windscreen needs a little trimming to get it to seat properly on the forward edges of the cockpit opening. I added turnbuckle fairings.

 

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Fit for fuselage and tail is good, except for the central piece of the ventral tunnel; that was a bit tricky. I had some trouble this time (I've done the new and old kits before) getting the interplane struts to fit. I expect that was me, not the kit, as I do not recall such difficulties in earlier runs at the plastic. I may have got the dihedral, or the angle of attack, wrong on the lower wings. But I pieced together the big 'N' struts, adding them element by element and trimmed to fit. It seems to have come out right --- the aileron actuator struts I made from thin strip are the same length on each side. Next one of these I do I will be paying serious attention to the lower wing attachment.
 

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A note to the eagle-eyed. There are only eleven tail stripes, not twelve, as it should be. The kit decals have a white stripe at the top, but it should be blue at the top, and the top stripe on the Curtiss at least was a little thicker than the rest. Like an idiot I did not notice this till I had the decals on and the rudder attached. So I painted blue to the top, so at least it would seem right at first glance. I expect I will go back and put new decals on that are properly striped, once we get our new printer working well....

 

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Work In Progress thread for the build may be found here:

 

 

 

It contains some interesting reference material.

Edited by Old Man

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Very nice result! I like your subtle weathering difference between fabric and metal.

Hawk IIi was so much needed by me that about 40 years ago I did a scratch conversion of Monogram Hawk II into Thai Hawk III... It is still on my shelves. I have to make small upgrate - 40 years ago I did not add rogging.

  So I have a soft spot on Hawk III :) 

Cheers

Jerzy-Wojtek

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6 hours ago, SoftScience said:

Wow. Great model, and very interesting write-up. I learned a lot from that.

 

Glad you liked it, Sir. I find the period fascinating.

6 hours ago, JWM said:

Very nice result! I like your subtle weathering difference between fabric and metal.

Hawk IIi was so much needed by me that about 40 years ago I did a scratch conversion of Monogram Hawk II into Thai Hawk III... It is still on my shelves. I have to make small upgrate - 40 years ago I did not add rogging.

  So I have a soft spot on Hawk III :) 

Cheers

Jerzy-Wojtek

 

A heroic effort, Sir.

 

The new Special Hobby can still be got, and you would have little trouble with it.

 

For the colors, I mix a basic tone, and add a touch of black for metal and of buff for the fabric.

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Awesome model! The base and the writeup adds a whole new dimention to it. :worthy::worthy:

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Very interesting and a superb model.  A rather attractive aeroplane.

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Wonderful build Old Man, and thank you for the well written history of the Hawk III in China, fascinating stuff.

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A lovely build of an iconic '30s aircraft. It's good to read the story behind the model.

 

  I have learnt something,   Trev.

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Quite superb!

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Fantastic job

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As ever, well-written and researched bit of history to accompany a well-made model. Thanks for sharing.

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On 2/13/2017 at 5:25 PM, jeaton01 said:

Well done, OM!

 

Thank you, Sir. Welcome to the forum!

 

21 hours ago, SJLR_1 said:

Awesome model! The base and the writeup adds a whole new dimention to it. :worthy::worthy:

 

Thank you very much, Sir.

 

It is a particularly interesting period of history.

 

21 hours ago, Meatbox8 said:

Very interesting and a superb model.  A rather attractive aeroplane.

 

 

It does have a look about it, Sir. I don't know that I would call it attractive myself --- it is certainly unique....

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20 hours ago, Cookenbacher said:

Wonderful build Old Man, and thank you for the well written history of the Hawk III in China, fascinating stuff.

 

 

12 hours ago, vh-bob said:

A lovely build of an iconic '30s aircraft. It's good to read the story behind the model.

 

  I have learnt something,   Trev.

 

Thank you, Gentlemen. It is a machine that ought to be better known, and it does stand as a sort of emblem of Chinese resistance in the late thirties.

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12 hours ago, Mitch K said:

Quite superb!

 

4 hours ago, russ c said:

Fantastic job

 

 

Thank you very much, Gentlemen!

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3 hours ago, Beard said:

As ever, well-written and researched bit of history to accompany a well-made model. Thanks for sharing.

 

Thank you, Sir. The account of Col Kao is put together mostly from the new Republic of China Aces number by Osprey, and from material on Hakans 'Biplane Aces' site.

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Great post – interesting history and nicely built model. I am appreciating the pre-WWII/early WWII aircraft more and more.

 

Regards,

David

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9 hours ago, Old Man said:

 

Thank you, Sir. Welcome to the forum!

 

 

Thank you very much, Sir.

 

It is a particularly interesting period of history.

 

 

 

It does have a look about it, Sir. I don't know that I would call it attractive myself --- it is certainly unique....

 

Ha ha.  Well, you know what they say, beauty is in the eye... etc etc?  Personally I think even the Blackburn Blackburn has a certain charm.

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5 hours ago, Meatbox8 said:

 

Ha ha.  Well, you know what they say, beauty is in the eye... etc etc?  Personally I think even the Blackburn Blackburn has a certain charm.

 

 

This last of the biplane Hawks just strikes me as something strange in profile, like an aggressive tad-pole or a truculent guppy....

 

I am actually rather fond of the Blackburn Blackburn; it has a solid place on my one day I'll scratch-build that' list. But it's beyond ugly, it's an affront to the very idea that men can fly....

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4 hours ago, Old Man said:

 

 

This last of the biplane Hawks just strikes me as something strange in profile, like an aggressive tad-pole or a truculent guppy....

 

I am actually rather fond of the Blackburn Blackburn; it has a solid place on my one day I'll scratch-build that' list. But it's beyond ugly, it's an affront to the very idea that men can fly....

 

Oh, I don't know.  So good they named it twice... I'll say one thing about the Hawk though.  It can't have been much fun belly landing it. 

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8 hours ago, Meatbox8 said:

 

I'll say one thing about the Hawk though.  It can't have been much fun belly landing it. 

 

That 'lobe' arrangement might have helped, if nothing was being carried on the center-line. Kind of like some of the early wing retractions, where the gear folded back into fairings that even sometimes left the wheels exposed. Could have worked a bit like the crumple-zones on a modern automobile.

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6 hours ago, Old Man said:

 

That 'lobe' arrangement might have helped, if nothing was being carried on the center-line. Kind of like some of the early wing retractions, where the gear folded back into fairings that even sometimes left the wheels exposed. Could have worked a bit like the crumple-zones on a modern automobile.

Which reminds me, what is the large hoop or ring arrangement between the undercarriage legs?

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18 hours ago, Meatbox8 said:

Which reminds me, what is the large hoop or ring arrangement between the undercarriage legs?

 

It is called a 'venturi ring' in description of the machine. In prototype flights, it was noticed that when a bomb or fuel tank was carried on the centerline, the airstream around the horizontal stabilizer was unsettled, reducing effectiveness of the controls and stabilizer. The ring smoothed things out, and moderated the problem.

Edited by Old Man

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